MIT's spiciest memelord
Lilly Chin on her Jeopardy! victory
Editor’s note: this article was transcribed and arranged by the editor from interviews with Lilly Chin ’17, winner of 2017’s Jeopardy! College Championship.
Before I got on Jeopardy, I’d catch it on TV, but it wasn’t really a big part of my life. I did quiz bowl in high school, and way back in the day I tried out for teen tournament, but I don’t really remember that at all. This really only started with my GRT when I lived in Random, Phil Arevalo. He was on Jeopardy, so when the qualifying test came out, he was like, “Everyone should take the test, it’s online, it’s whatever,” so I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
They have the test in October, and it’s only given at one time so that people can’t cheat by time zones. It was actually in the middle of class, so I was trying not to get caught by my teacher while also answering the questions very quickly, but I guess it worked out. I got invited to in-person auditions. I went to New York City in November. I got the call that I was on the show in December, and then January, first week of IAP, I was filming.
On TV, Jeopardy shows the question, and that fills the entire screen, and then it jumps to the three contestants, and then you see who buzzes in, and then it’s another shot of just the contestant, and then maybe a shot to Trebeck, and that just repeats. You never get a sense of how big the space is. You don’t think about the space. I think that was the biggest surprise — it was a place I could walk around in and experience.
Filming was really intense. Everyone’s hands were shaking. If you watch the video, you don’t know. You don’t realize how intense it is until you’re onstage and see it as a set, and there’s lights and film and everything. Everyone on the Jeopardy staff is really extroverted, and so you need to be really extroverted, too. It’s a lot. I was very tired by the end of the first day of filming. I was first call, and even just playing that one game — it was only 30 minutes — was very stressful.
I think the thing I liked most about being on Jeopardy, though, was seeing what a professional film crew does. I’ve done filming in the past — I used to be part of my high school’s film crew for football — so I know everything about how it works, about switching the cuts and the different cameramen. To go to Hollywood, see the soundstages, and see how professional the crew was, and how everyone needs to be in the right place, and how well-oiled the machine was, it felt very weird that I was part of this grand Hollywood film tradition for a TV show.
It also didn’t really hit me that I was going to be on TV until the first viewing party. I watched the episode on my giant TV, and seeing the swooping camera angles and me — I was just like, “What?” Watching it again and seeing the answers I remembered and the answers I didn’t, I was just yelling at the screen like, “Why’d you miss that, why’d you buzz in on that, you didn’t know the answer!”
I would’ve been happy just making the semifinals and being on TV for two days. I was not expecting to win the entire thing. It’s funny because I don’t remember much of the tournament. I remember what happens, but while playing, it’s just so intense. I do trap shooting, and the coach always tells us, “Take one shot at a time. Don’t think about your overall score.” It was very much like that. I was just thinking, “Get this question, get this question right.”
For all of double Jeopardy, I didn’t realize I had a lead. I was pretty worried about Gary the naval guy. He was really aggressive on the buzzer, especially in the first game, so in the five minutes between the two games, I was like, “Okay, I need to psych myself up, I need to do well and beat him on the buzzer,” and I somehow found the zone during Double Jeopardy. I didn’t realize I was doing so well until I looked up at the end, and then I did all the math, and I was like, “Oh, this is a lockout game!” I tried to come up with the Final Jeopardy answer, but at that point I was just so excited that I had won the whole thing. I had already decided I was going to answer “dank memes” or “spicy memes.” There’s always a chance, if you have a lock-out game, to put down some funny answer, so I just went with the original plan.
I didn’t realize how big of a deal being on the show was until I did it. A lot of people have been reaching out with stories. There was one random person who said, “I have two 14-year-old daughters. They want to do chemical engineering, and they’re really inspired to see that you can do well in academics but also have fun.” Another person told me how they were in a hospital for a family emergency, and they were watching Jeopardy. When my memelord answer came up, they thought it was really funny. It is really weird being a public figure. I’m a part of people’s lives in a way I never expected. I feel really strange to be able to make a difference in people’s lives I think.
It’s also interesting because you go onto social media and you see random people from all over the country either tweeting, “Yeah, go Lilly!” or “I hate Lilly! Why does she roll up her sleeves?” It was very obvious to me, having spent time a lot of on the internet, that if you’re in any place of public position, people are going to hate on you. It was really fun to see that in real life.
I was very publically representing MIT. I’ve had alums from the ’70s email me. President Reif sent me an email. I do student government, so I work with the chancellor and the dean of student life, and they sent nice notes. I appreciated that. My Facebook was blowing up. Every time I was logging in I would have a hundred notifications. I already saw my face on the TV screen in the Infinite. People were coming up to me and saying, “I’m from MIT, I’m so excited to see you on Jeopardy.” I find it crazy that there’s so much school spirit.
I’m really excited for [Jeopardy’s] Tournament of Champions. Meanwhile, someone made a “Japanese game show” for East Campus bad ideas weekend, and I helped. Japanese game shows have all these environmental hazards. The one that EC made was a wall with a bunch of two by fours sticking out. You stood on the two by fours, and you had to answer trivia questions while the two by fours were being taken out from under your feet. I did that, and my friends saw me helping out, pulling the two by fours out, and they were like, “Do you have a game show problem? You’re back to this!” Slightly different, but it was pretty funny.
Lilly Chin is a member of the class of 2017.